Achebe looked lovingly at the only ray of light in her life, Lesedi, who kicked with her tiny legs on Achebe’s bosom. Lesedi wailed as she tried hard to suck, but in vain, there was no milk left in Achebe. The scorching heat had not only devoured the little vegetation and water surrounding the Xhosa hut where both mother and daughter lived but also gave birth to diseases.
Achebe lived with her mother in this hut since her childhood. Her mother worked as a daily wage labourer in the fields, two miles away from their hut. There were few neighbours around; amongst them some of the children along with Achebe went to a free school, nearly a mile away.
Every day, Achebe walked along with Musa and others to school. Musa was caring and played with Achebe; they were good friends and grew up together. Achebe’s closeness to Musa, led to her conception without being aware of the consequences, at the tender age of thirteen.
Several months after Lesedi’s birth, Achebe’s mother had high fever. A white lady wearing a white gown along with two white men in white over coats had come to check, and had taken her mother immediately to the make shift hospital nearby. Her mother died, and the doctors in the hospital informed her, the death was due to a viral disease called, Ebola.
The lady consoled Achebe and told her through an interpreter, “Ebola is an infectious viral disease which spreads rapidly, and the doctors haven’t found any cure for it. I would advise you to take your child to the child care in the city, where the health of the children is being monitored. You can stay in the girls’ centre and take care of your daughter. As of now it’s very dangerous for anyone to stay in your village, please think it over. Soon I’ll visit your village again, and in the mean time you can take a decision.”
Few days later, Achebe heard the sound of the wheels approaching. Life was being unfair to Achebe. She had to take the decision fast and there was no one to guide her now except Musa.
The car stopped in front of Achebe’s hut. She saw the same lady walking up to her. “Have you thought about it yet?” she asked smiling to Achebe which was again interpreted by the local guy accompanying her. Achebe nodded and then hugged the wailing Lesedi. She smiled wryly and said, “Take Lesedi with you, I’m not coming but I’ll visit her soon”.
The lady looked shocked, and asked, “Why you don’t want to accompany your daughter?”
Achebe pointed towards the far end of the horizon and said, “Musa stays there, he has asked me to send Lesedi with you. He has promised to take me to the city to visit Lesedi and we’ll all live together”.
“Are you sure?” the lady asked. Achebe nodded. Before leaving with Lesedi, the lady put a small cross tied with beads in a chain around Achebe’s neck. She put her hand on Achebe’s head and said, “May Jesus be with you, please visit the hospital whenever you need help and ask for me, my name is Ana”.
Later, Achebe met Musa and told him about the events that took place. Musa hugged Achebe and love bloomed in the parched land. Achebe excitedly packed her bare belongings and treaded behind Musa, dreaming of a new, beautiful start far away from this lifeless life.
Achebe looked with wide, big eyes at the city’s night skyline which had many buildings, lights and cars zooming all around. Her thirst and hunger which had accumulated, in this long bus journey through the rough terrain, had vanished in an instance at the sight. They walked through the lanes and by lanes which were darker and narrower than the main roads.
Musa stopped in front of a building and told Achebe, “You wait here, I’m coming back”. Achebe asked, “Is Lesedi here, in this building?” Without answering Musa entered through the gate. Achebe though tired and sleepy after the hectic travel, yearned for the sight and sound of Lesedi.
Sometime later a lean, tall man came out and ushered Achebe to follow him inside. She followed the man through the gate, climbed up the stairs, walked through a long corridor and the door leading to a room.
The man disappeared and Achebe found a heavily built middle-aged woman sitting on the sofa smiling at Achebe.
The woman asked Achebe, “Are you hungry? Come here, sit next to me”. “Where’s Musa?” she enquired. The woman ignoring Achebe’s question, ordered someone to bring food and water. Achebe gorged on the injera with vegetables and meat toppings. The water ran down her throat like a spring gushing down the unknown mountain path.
Achebe woke up to a loud noise of a whistle blowing. Rubbing her still sleepy eyes, she tried to accustom herself with her surroundings. The room was quite dark except a faint light that seeped through the creek of the door. There were others sleeping next to her on the wooden floor, all girls around her age but different in skin colour, some of them black like her, others white, very white, brown, and not very black.
Before Achebe could get up, a black man entered and shouted at them in the same language as Ana. She stared bewildered, thinking about Musa. The man shut the door after he was finished. Some of the girls started crying, others shrieked, she didn’t understand how to react to the circumstances.
Achebe walked up to the black girl who was sitting with her head lowered, and asked her if she understood what the man said. The girl nodded and asked Achebe, “Do you know where you are being taken?”
Achebe looked at the girl with disbelief and exclaimed, “No! I had come to the city, to meet my daughter. I fell asleep in a house, and woke up here, please tell me what is the matter”.
The girl slowly replied, “We’re on a ship crossing the seas to a new country. When we reach that country, we cannot utter a word otherwise we’ll be punished severely”.
Achebe asked in disbelief, “What about my daughter and Musa? Where are they?”
The girl replied, “Oh! Forget about your family. You’ve been sold”. The words struck Achebe like thunder, a bolt from the blue.
One day, in the darkness of the night, the ship finally docked at the shores. All the girls from the ship were huddled quietly in a huge truck, where they hunched behind big wooden boxes. Some of them screamed out of fear, soon they were beaten mercilessly, with their hands and legs tied, and their mouths gagged.
Achebe and the girls entered a house surrounded by a huge fence. There were dogs barking menacingly; but their collars were held by huge men either white or black. All the girls were huddled in a room, with a small window on the wall near the ceiling.
In a while, a black woman entered the room with food and water. She instructed in various languages, “This is your room, the door will always be locked, and you cannot go out unless allowed. The bathroom is on the other end of this room. We’ll bring in your necessities, but remember to follow the orders; otherwise the consequences are going to be brutal. Now have your food and go to sleep. Tomorrow you’ll be trained in your job.”
Next day, Achebe and the girls woke up to a loud noise. There was a white woman who shouted at them to form a queue and took them to a large room, which had tables and chairs. She said, “This is the bar, where people visit for entertainment. You’ve to serve drinks to the customers, and keep them engaged. It is your duty to make yourself available to them, and then you will earn money.”
A white man joined her; he had a leather belt and whacked everyone with it. The girls screamed and winced in pain. He coldly muttered with blood shot eyes, “Anyone who tries to act smart and runs away, will be killed, do you follow me? Don’t talk to your clients about escaping from here.”
Days passed, Achebe and the girls became efficient in their job of bar girls in the evening, and entertaining the guests at night.
They all became friends and shared their stories of life’s miseries. Achebe was fond of the white girl with golden locks. She said her name was Lana. War broke out in her country, her family was killed, and she had to flee. Both of them gradually could grasp a few English words from their customers.
One morning, when they were idling in the room, Lana whispered to Achebe, “I’ve found a way to escape from this hell. Everyday I’m serving three to four clients at night, I can’t take this anymore. My whole body is in pain, I can barely move.”
Achebe looked at Lana with wide eyes, in disbelief, “But how? There are so many guards and dogs all around, the fence is also so high and electrified.” she asked.
Lana smiled shyly, and replied, “One of my clients, the man in uniform, has promised to help me escape. Tonight, he’ll stealthily take me away from here.”
“Are you sure Lana?” Achebe asked in a doubtful tone. Lana gave a broad smile. Achebe hugged Lana and felt happy, though her heart bled for her own sorrow.
In the wee hours, the white man who whipped them with a belt entered the room, with a gun. He was furious and yelled at Lana, pointing the gun at her head. Achebe plunged in front of Lana and begged with the man, “Leave her, she’ll not do it again, sorry.”
The man slapped Achebe, “Get out of my way, you devil!” Her head banged against the wall on the other end of the room. She heard a gunshot and felt dizzy, all the girls were terrified. From the faint vision, she saw blood streaming down, as Lana slumped on the floor.
That night was a miserable one for Achebe, she held the cross on her neck and cried, after which she made up her mind and reached a firm decision.
There were a few clients for Achebe, who visited her daily. Gabe was a cheerful, tall, young black guy, who liked Achebe. He was the one who drove the truck and brought Achebe and others over here. Due to the daily bonding between Gabe and Achebe, they had shared their past memories also.
Gabe had earlier mentioned to Achebe, “I’ll take you to the city one day.” She asked, “How you will take me, they won’t allow.” “Oh don’t worry, we can take you outside, as long as you behave properly and come back safely,” he replied. Achebe didn’t respond and only wondered when that day will come.
The following day after the night session, Achebe casually mentioned to Gabe, “Oh, the city must be beautiful at night, how I wish I could see it once.”
“We can visit today.” He replied.
“Will you be able to manage, to take me today?”
Gabe smiled, “Don’t bother, the guards trust me.” Without turning back Achebe held Gabe’s hand firmly, walked towards the door, and hopped into his truck.
Gabe kept chatting as they reached the city, but Achebe was not interested, she was trying to figure out her escape route. He showed her the high rise buildings and the famous places in the city. He suddenly said, “Now we’ve to go back, I’ve work to do.”
“What work do you have to do so late at night? We’ve just arrived; can’t we roam a little longer?” Achebe pleaded.
“No, I’ve to cross the border and deliver the goods before sun rise.”
Can’t you take me with you? You know me Gabe, I’ll be an angel, you’ll not face any problem,” a plan has struck Achebe’s mind, she hugged and kissed him.
Gabe grinned, “Ok darling, but you have to hide behind the boxes as security is very strict at the border crossing. I’ll be dead if they find you in the truck.”
“Don’t worry darling, I’ll be as quiet as a stone, in between the huge boxes,” Achebe assured.
The journey was long; Achebe’s body was aching, she was nearly immobile when finally the truck halted.
Suddenly the back doors of the truck were opened; and Achebe could see from the narrow space between the boxes, there were five men and women in uniform. They were shouting in English to remove and open the boxes. This was the moment she thought, now or never.
Achebe’s heart was pounding, she gathered all the strength she could muster in her lungs, and screamed. The people in uniform took out their guns and aimed towards the boxes where Achebe was hiding.
“What’s your name?” one of the white lady officers asked Achebe in the police station. She narrated her harrowing ordeal.
Gulping down the water, Achebe followed the officer, who informed her, “We’ve recorded your statements for our investigations. First we’ll take you to a hospital for your medical checkup and then send you to a women’s shelter, hope it is fine with you.”
Achebe smiled at the officer, tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked outside; it was already morning, a bright sunny day. Clenching the cross on her chest, she thanked God, her mind racing towards Lesedi.
Stepping inside the hospital she thought, “At last I’ve got my unimaginable freedom at dawn, one day I’ll meet my little girl, and my hopes against all odds will never die.”
This is an entry for the event #BreakFree, ArtoonsInn’s signature Short Story Writing event, #ArTales-16.
Check out event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/break-free-artales-16-open-event/
Check out Alipi’s space here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/author/alipi-das/